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Editorial: Yonkers firefighters should help trim costs

A Yonkers firefighter at the inauguration of Robert

A Yonkers firefighter at the inauguration of Robert Sweeney as the city's new acting fire commissioner in the mayor's reception room at City Hall. (Aug. 31, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

At a time when governments ought to be sharing services to curb duplication, waste and seemingly out-of-control property taxes, you'd think a commonsense idea like training firefighters at a central command center would be an easy sell.

Not so in Yonkers.

In the tit-for-tat of contract negotiations and efforts to win the hearts and minds of the public, Mayor Mike Spano and Yonkers Fire Local 628 are still fighting each other -- but their latest squabble over training recruits appears to be a smoke-screen over another matter: overtime.

After holding off on hiring a class of firefighters amid a contract battle -- one that remains in arbitration -- the mayor recently relented and is adding 35 firefighters in February to the county's largest department, which has roughly 450 members. In return, he wants them to be instructed at Westchester County's Fire Training Center in Valhalla. That would cost about half what past training ran when done by city firefighters at Yonkers facilities, saving more than $250,000.

"If they're good enough to train every other fire department in Westchester County, then they're good enough to train Yonkers," the mayor told "We pay county taxes, and part of the services we receive is access to the training facility."

Union leaders rejected the idea outright, saying their city of hills has density and topographical issues that require Yonkers fire professionals to do the training. Yonkers firefighters need specialized training, they argue.

For sure, Yonkers has its unique challenges, but so do any number of fire departments all across the county -- including cities, towns and villages -- that successfully use the county facility.

What can't be overlooked is that Yonkers firefighters receive overtime -- time-and-a-half, in fact -- when they're acting as trainers. So hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line.

Clearly there's a vexing question: Is this about providing the best training or about top-notch overtime? It sure sounds like the latter.

Since the contract expired in 2009, the mayor and union have had very public back-and-forths over sick leave, overtime, a $70,998 starting salary, changes to the minimum number of firefighters required on a tour and other contract perks. Some of these have found their way into court.

So far, none of the 45 certified county teachers have come forward to teach a Yonkers class, and you can't blame them for not wanting to get in the middle of this labor dispute.

The protocol at the county training center is that unions and municipal leaders have their agreements in order before classes begin. That hasn't happened in Yonkers as the fiery public relations war burns on.

That's too bad for taxpayers, as the city contends with $87-million gap this year and growing to more than $400 million through 2016.

The mayor and the union need to sort out many differences, and this one seems like a no-brainer. If the training center is good enough for the other departments in Westchester, it ought to be good enough for Yonkers.

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